Monday, May 13, 2024

Review: Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

Does civilization have to mean subjugation?

In the long chain of ancestors that span the millennia before the rise of humans, the earliest apes we count as members of the genus Homo are those belonging to the species Homo habilis, thus named because they could make tools. It's quite revealing that we ended up focusing on tools as the attribute that demarcates the human from the nonhuman. Although tool use is known to exist in other animals, including apes prior to the genus Homo, there seems to be a particular quality to the way we use tools. We didn't only work with hand-sized objects; we intentionally reshaped entire landscapes, turning land and water into our tools. We learned to manipulate the reproduction of food plants and animals, turning other lifeforms into our tools. We even invented social rules to enslave our fellow humans, which is equivalent to turning people into tools. For most of our history, our way of relating to the nonhuman has been to try to control it—and then we've turned the same techniques against ourselves. Only humans dehumanize.

The prevalence of this tragic practice raises a series of increasingly uncomfortable questions: Is oppression innate to Homo sapiens? Or would it emerge in any sufficiently complex society, regardless of species? If another species acquires human-level intelligence, are they destined to repeat our mistakes?

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is plotted as the most basic "bandits raided my village" story. However, by the mere fact that its characters aren't human, the political parallels with human history become more salient (such is the magic of cognitive estrangement). After the previous Planet of the Apes entry left us with the leader chimpanzee Caesar following a Moses template, guiding his people to a promised land but dying before he could settle in it, Kingdom shows us an ape society that has rediscovered one of the most dangerous of human inventions: mythologization. Over the centuries, Caesar's teachings have been inevitably misremembered, which makes them useful as an excuse for political dominance. The pattern feels all too human; one just needs to look at the Spanish Empire, which pillaged and murdered in the name of Jesus, who preached fraternal love and forgiveness; or the ultranationalist factions in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, which engage in ethnic cleansing in the name of Buddha, who preached peace and universal compassion. In Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar's doctrine of strength through unity has been similarly twisted into one of totalitarian submission.

Curiously, the theme of domination makes twin appearances in the two groups in conflict. In this corner: our protagonist, young chimpanzee Noa, who comes from a tribe that captures eagle eggs for domestication, but takes care to not overharvest. In this other corner: self-proclaimed king Proximus, whose regime captures apes for slavery with unmeasured greed. When Noa's community is destroyed, its leader's first impulse is to free all the eagles. When Proximus's kingdom is destroyed, his first impulse is to violently reassert his power. It's a simplistic contrast, but it makes its point: in the end, the freed eagles are the ones to bring about the tyrant's downfall. Let it not be said that this movie is subtle.

What complicates matters is the presence of a human, Mae, who takes advantage of Noa's expectations to gain his trust. Mae believes in the right of humans to reclaim their lost supremacy, but her actions in the story end up confirming the apes' every suspicion against humans. She uses the apes for her own agenda, because she's not ready to deal with apes as equals, and the movie seems to take the stance that such crucial step can never happen. In the world of Planet of the Apes, humans can't outgrow the mindset that human-nonhuman relations must proceed by a dynamic of control, which means that humans won't agree to share the top position.

This question of who will prevail bears a strong imprint of dramatic irony in the choice of antagonist. Proximus, like Koba in the preceding movies, isn't a chimpanzee, but a bonobo. In our real world, bonobos are a notably nonviolent species, with a social organization built on webs of mother-to-mother alliances as opposed to the brutal pyramidal patriarchy of chimpanzees. Bonobo society displays many of the virtues we thought were exclusive to us: empathy, cooperation, de-escalation, openness, negotiation, tolerance. To cast precisely bonobos in evil roles (a murderer embittered by resentment, in the case of Koba; a despot obsessed with accumulating more power, in the case of Proximus) is, indirectly, another jab at humans: both of these villains had their worldviews corrupted by human influence.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes buries all this rich symbolic subtext underneath a lamentably boilerplate script. Our hero goes in search of his kidnapped community, meets an erudite yet eccentric elder, gets captured by the enemy, plans his escape, saves his people, the end. At several moments it feels like the writers are tempted to explore a more daring side of the story, but each time, it holds back. There are valuable questions sparked by the reveal of the survival of talking humans, or the differing traditions that claim to follow Caesar, or whatever discovery drew Proximus to start hoarding history books, or the apparent subservience of gorillas to smaller apes. The last few minutes allude to a much bigger confrontation that steals the spotlight from the main events of the movie. All along, the viewer has been led to believe that the core conflict was between opposite models of ape society, but the ending sweeps all that under the rug and restates the entire plot in terms of the possibility of human-ape coexistence.

As the only human character for most of the runtime, Mae's arc reflects a pessimistic view of human-ape relations. She lies, pretends, misleads, and is ready to betray or kill whenever she sees the need. Most of the apes she interacts with have never met another human, and based solely on her conduct, one could forgive them for persisting in the belief that humans are fundamentally untrustworthy. She doesn't seek coexistence; she seeks a return to the old times (that is, our times), with humans in possession of the technological means to subjugate all other species. She doesn't see a livable future where humans are brought down to the same level as the rest of animals.

There's at least one school of thought that agrees with her. Early 20th century biologists developed what is known as Gause's law, which says that coexistence cannot maintain stability where two species require the same resources. Over time, the species with the fitness advantage will displace the other. In Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, Mae's unstated fear is that, without advanced technology, humans are in a situation of clear competitive disadvantage. Proximus doesn't know Mae's plans, but he shares her worldview: he wants to acquire human technology for the exact same reason. The good news, both for the fictional future apes and for us, is that Gause's law has not been confirmed. Population dynamics obeys many more factors than access to resources; the mathematical modeling required to test such scenarios is still too complex for clear predictions; and real-life cases abound of species with overlapping niches. Some form of coexistence is possible. The tricky part is figuring out which form.

It's interesting to see how much Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes plays with deep themes while being apparently unaware that it's doing so. Too many key questions are left intentionally open, and the plot is decidedly conservative in both structure (resolution via return to status quo) and message (human technology is too dangerous to let either faction have it). It has been noted by other critics that this is the first Apes produced since Disney's acquisition of 20th Century Fox, which, if you put on your cynical eyeglasses, may explain the movie's restrained politics, just-serviceable action, relative lack of blood, and itch for sequel teasing. It would be a pity to see this rebooted franchise fall to the same vices of the rest of the Disney machine. I almost wish I had chimpanzee feet, just so I could cross more fingers.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.